Palestine Cemetery is located near Quinton, Oklahoma. It is the cemetery in which many of my relatives are buried. I went three times in 2012. The day I shall describe is December 17, 2012. We buried my mother there two months prior.
Many people were present the day of the funeral. In order to not distress the onlookers, and cause them to think I needed mental help, I did not do what I wanted to do at the funeral. I returned to the cemetery accompanied only by my precious dog, who had grieved for me when I left town to deal with preparations and services.
The sun was shining this November day, although not warm, it was not chilly. In my possession was the plastic temporary placard which contained the following words: Joyce Ann Monks Ates: August 17, 1952 – September 10, 2012. There was nothing indicating who lay under that bare mound of rocky clay, and I was determined to change that.
I wended my way through the myriad of turns and curves leading to the cemetery, several miles off the main road. A sense of impending uncertainty grew larger the closer I came to the cemetery. I wasn’t sure I could get out of the car upon arrival. I pulled off the side of the road in the cemetery, near Mom’s grave. I sat in my car and just looked for a long time. I finally summoned the emotional strength to put the palm of my hand on that hot window and pushed the door open.
Leaving my dog in the car so I would not have to be concerned with her whereabouts, I made my way to that naked mound. After confirming I was the only one in the cemetery, or in sight, and that I could hear no vehicles approaching, I did what I wanted to do when the casket was above ground. I stretched out on Mom’s grave, wrapping my arms around the raised earth. That was as close as I could come to holding her one last time. Knowing Mom’s body had been burned up, and then had an autopsy performed on it, I knew the contents of her casket did not reasonable my mommy. But I needed to hold something. I needed to hold her. I wanted to say goodbye without an audience. Mom was like that also, she never wanted anyone to witness her vulnerability.
I laid there with the lumpy earth pressing the side of my face. I dampened the dry clay with my tears, and I talked to her. I told her I hoped I had made her proud, and that I was sorry for having unnecessarily distressed her by dating a black man. I also told her I was proud of her response to that situation, that she had grown as the Christian by deciding to treat him the same as anyone else I would choose to date. I know Mom had some really hard situations to deal with, and to this day I am sorry to have been the cause of some of the stressors. However, I realize that is part of growing up. It is part of being a child, and part of being a mother.
Upon completing that portion of my emotional work, I turned to the physical memorialization. Having forgotten to bring anything with which to dig, I reviewed the contents of my trunk and found the hood prop which no longer resided near the engine. With determination and tears, and armed with a bottle of water with which to soften the earth, I began the arduous task of boring a hole into that hard dry earth. Given my size, the hardness of the ground, and my inadequate tools, it seemed impossible. Nonetheless, I was determined. At great length, I succeeded in creating a muddy hole large enough to insert the placard stand.
I had mixed feelings about this task once I had begun it. On one hand I was honoring my mother by telling the world where she was. On the other hand, I felt a sense of embarrassment or that I was being disrespectful for digging in the ground under which what was left of her body resided.
Having accomplished my task, I decided to read to Mom. She used to read to us for hours upon hours in the evenings. Mom would often ask me to read to her, saying she enjoyed it. There is a concrete bench some 25 feet away. I did not want to be that far from Mom. Surveying the area, I located a large stone. Lugging it to what would have been the head of the casket, had there been a complete body, I sat on the rock and flipped through my English literature book to find something that she would enjoy. I read two or three short passages aloud in the cemetery with not one other warm body present. I happened upon a long poem that dealt with the sorrow of parting using the analogy of a ship sailing away. Mom would have appreciated the reading and the subject matter. Death, dying, and grief were not shied away from in my family. Some may find it morbid that I read to my dead mother about death; she would find it appropriate.
As I sat on the rock with the wind drying my tears, I glanced around the cemetery. Headstones were everywhere, from small white rectangles lying even with the ground to large headstones with rather elaborate pictures on them. Some of the smaller headstones had been knocked over. The mowing crew apparently consisted of roaming cattle, as the grass was cropped quite short and there were numerous hoof prints throughout the cemetery from a more moist time.
Nearby, juxtaposed diagonally to Mom’s grave is a remarkable tombstone. It belongs to her parents; my grandparents. Grandpa’s side reads: Hardy Monks, Minister, Husband, Father. The verse emblazoned on it was of his own choosing: in heaven the rich and the poor shall eat together. The background picture on the headstone is an etching of a mountain scene with a large two-story church in the foreground. There is a curved pathway leading to the church. On that pathway, walking toward the church, are a mother and father accompanied by three children. There are two girls and one boy. The smallest child, a girl, is skipping on ahead of the others. That child is me.
Grandpa Monks started a church in Buffalo, Wyoming. However, due to age and failing health he had to return to Oklahoma. My mother and father moved us all to Wyoming and took over the church for about two years. Thus, the etching on my grandparents’ headstone is of their baby daughter (my mother) and her family. It is only fitting she should be buried so close to them. Mom always was a daddy’s girl, she is now forever close to him. That pleases me.
Slowly and deliberately, I returned everything to my vehicle, except the sign telling observers who that heaped up earth represented. I left having honored and respected my mother and loving her in a way that would please her. I slowly exited the cemetery, driving underneath the ancient wrought-iron arch which informed viewers that they had reached Palestine. Or at least it’s cemetery. The sensation with which I left that day was one of accomplishment and relief. I learned I could go “see Mom” on my own and be a better person for it.